The first thing you should know about No. 39 Faulks Street is that it does not really exist, at least not to the folks who live on Faulks Street or in Selemku. Popular town gossip has it that a woman– squeaky shoes, holes in a pink shawl that hugged her shoulders, and chewed out, crooked fingernails– once came to the Mayor’s office to buy a house number. In all the years since Ani threw a grain of sand into River Bambu and formed Selemku, no one has seen or heard of anyone buying just a house number. The mayor did not bother to ask the reason for her strange request, iyaasikwa! Instead, he stroked his jelly-belly chin and demanded the price of a house and a plot of land just to dissuade the woman. But the strange woman paid in full, with real gold coins. She did not even haggle with the mayor. They said she even tucked extra coins between the many folds of the mayor’s neck. So now, there is No. 38 Faulks Street next to No. 40 Faulks Street. This is the much the townsfolk know. What they do not know is that that when their children play In-Out in the sandpit between No. 38 Faulks Street and No. 40 Faulks Street, the roof of No. 39 Faulks Street, buried underground, creaks under the stumping of their puny feet.

I know what you are thinking now, that Faulks Street and Selemku is happy-happy because you hear me mention sandpit, playing children, and puny feet. Odikwaegwu! The story Selemku does not like to tell itself is that ten years ago, a woman was accused of witchcraft and dragged out to the city-gate to face the guillotine. Her name was Nwanyi Kà. Strange meaning that name has, the Greeting Woman. You would think the people of Selemku will remember all their foremothers taught them about how people with strange names come from strange places and should be let be. Nwanyi Kà did not want to give the jeering crowd the satisfaction they sought, asi-asi! Before the executioner lowered the serrated blade that shimmered in the warm afternoon light, the woman cursed herself to burst open and her many pieces  possessed the nearest bodies they could find. 

The townsfolk went home delighted in their minuscule minds that they have purged Selemku of this filth called witchcraft. Many months later, the women of Selemku started giving birth to unusual babies: babies with white pupils,  with aluminium fingernails,  with thorns in place of eyebrows, babies with seven toes on each feet, babies with spinning heads, babies that sweated blood, babies with hairs on their palms and soles, and babies who exhaled fire. Ngwa-ngwa, the townsfolk sought Ani’s face at Ekan Hill as they  always do when their lives begin to spiral out of control. They pitched their tent at the summit of the hill– every man, woman, and child– and kept vigil for four long nights until Ani finally spoke. Or, they believed she did. No one could tell because one minute they were straining their ears to hear Ani’s voice filter through the crater at the top of the hill, the next, Anyanzu, Ani’s priest, was screaming that he could feel Ani’s voice in his bones.

“The Great Goddess has instructed that all the unusual babies  be dumped into Gworo Pit before tomorrow becomes memory.”

Sunrise. Mothers wrapped their babies in little purple clothes and did as Ani commanded. The babies cried. At first, they thought the cries were just babies yearning for their mothers, but the crying continued, shrill, searing, causing people’s ears to bleed. And then mornings became too bright and nights took an extra layer of pitch. The townsfolk stuffed their ears with wool and reeds and anything that could block out the cries, avoided going out in the mornings because the sun’s scorch could peel  skin, and carried lanterns around all night so they wouldn’t bump into each other. Selemku remained like this until the day after the strange woman bought a house number. The crying stopped and Gworo Pit was empty. All the unusual babies were gone. 

This is where the story ends for the townsfolk and begins for the children of No. 39 Faulks Street. 

Madam Principal built No. 39 Faulks Street with the help of her friends: Stool, Flower Vase, Illumination, Coffee Mug, Bell, Ceiling, Zinc, Floor, Sewing Machine, Roster, and Armchair. Illumination is not really Madam Principal’s friend-friend, she does not live in the house like everybody else, comes only in the mornings, does not even wait for most lunches, and lurks behind the windows like she is scared of entering the house. 

In this house, Madam Principal gave us new lives and new names. She told us how our mothers left us to die at Gworo Pit while our fathers downed bottles of Ogogoro at Quidi Bar. Every day  she reminds us that nobody wants us, that we are forever indebted to her generosity, and that we are stuck with her forever. She feeds us. Clothes us. In return, we go for night-rounds. Sometimes the night-rounds can be fun, like when you are told to raid the baker’s shop for bread or steal golden necklaces from the dancers at Lasisi Disco hall. Other times, they  are not so fun because you could fall into a pot of boiling okra soup or have your limbs forever maimed by a glue-mat. When one of us becomes too much trouble, Madam Principal expels him or her.

*

Tonight, Madam Principal will expel Ogobuchukwuonye. Although she has not announced it yet, we know because Ogobuchukwuonye  tried to use magic on her during breakfast. Madam Principal had just caught Tobi slipping extra bacon into the back pocket of his shorts and was about to scold the pimple-faced boy when Flower Vase flew above her, missing her head by a quarter-inch. It was easy to tell it was Ogobuchukwuonye because her eyes were still locked on Stool, where Madam Principal keeps Flower Vase so her roses will catch Illumination. The rest of us  shuddered at the dining table.

Nobody is allowed to use magic while we are at No. 39 Faulks Street, not to talk of using it on Madam Principal!

“Ogo, upstairs, now,” Madam Principal had said. “The rest of you go and study or practice some spells. Just do something that will not make me see your faces until evening.”

All day, we hear heavy thuds upstairs, from Madam Principal’s bedroom. Our voices thin into whispers because we do not want to untangle the gauze of uncertainty wrapped around No. 39 Faulks Street. We scatter around the house like the lupines in the back garden. Some of us mill around the doorways, the kitchen, and the verandah, while the rest of us go back to our rooms. I do not know what made Ogobuchukwuonye try to smash Flower Vase on Madam Principal’s head. She has always been Madam Principal’s favorite. Ogobuchukwuonye who Madam Principal called a shining example. Ogobuchukwuonye who had the keys to Madam Principal’s room. Ogobuchukwuonye who could slip into houses through keyholes, drainpipes, air vents, wall cracks, and all the tiny places you can think of. Ogobuchukwuonye who rubbed shame-powder on our faces when we failed to complete our night-rounds. If anyone will throw anything at Madam Principal, it should not be Ogobuchukwuonye. 

*

“Maobi, what are you doing?” A voice asks as I close the kitchen door. The voice grows hands and starts pulling me along the dark hallway. And before I can protest, it has grown eyes, dim blue eyes, that are now peering into mine.

“You’re trying to steal food.”

“No. I just went to drink water, I swear.”

“Open your mouth lemme smell it…uhmmm…hmmppp…that stinks. When last did you brush?”

The voice transforms into a giggle. I can tell who it belongs to now, Ifiok, but this does not stop my stomach from doing cartwheels or my legs pressing together to calm the pee threatening to burst. Everybody feels this way when Ifiok holds them. There is no denying No. 39 Faulks Street is a house filled with shape-shifters, spell-casters, dream-conjurers, and astral-travelers. Still, we all think Ifiok is weird. She sits by herself most of the time, staring into space, smiling to herself, and talking to people we cannot see. Even Madam Principal says something is a bit off with that girl.  

“Ifiok!”

“You should have seen your face. Scaredy-dooduu-bambam.”

“Pfft, I wasn’t scared. Not one bit.”

“Tell that to your rotten breath.”

I hiss and make my way out of the hallway. Ifiok never stops talking and the longer anyone talks with her, the spookier she gets.

“I can tell what you are thinking.” Ifiok’s voice dangles between threat and matter-of-fact.

“Good luck with that.” 

“You want to know why Ogobuchukwuonye did it?”

“Don’t pride yourself for reading my mind. We all want to know why Ogobuchukwuonye did what she did.”

“But nobody knows it’s because she refused to do Madam Principal’s bidding.”

This is crazy talk. Nobody dares to disobey Madam Principal.

“It’s not crazy talk. That’s why she tried to smash Madam Principal’s head with Flower Vase.” 

“Get out of my head evil spawn!”

Maybe it was a mistake. Ogobuchukwuonye should know better not to…

“If it was just a mistake, why will Madam Principal expel her tonight?” Ifiok asks.

“We don’t know if she will be expelled. Wait, what?”

“You know it.” The girl cocks her head at me in an ehn stance.

“How do you know I know it?”

“Because I read people’s…”

“Shut up already!” My voice rings across the hallway and echoes throughout the house.

“What are you all standing and looking at?” Madam Principal’s voice towers above us. She is standing on the top stair, her right arm slant on the banister for support. She glares at Ifiok and me with her bad eye, the left one that drips cloudy jelly, until we pretend to be minding our business. Madam Principal goes back into her bedroom to continue whatever she is doing with Ogobuchukwuonye.

“Does my truth scare you?” Ifiok asks me.

“Your big mouth will get us all into trouble.” 

*

Evening. We now know for sure Ogobuchukwuonye will be expelled. Madam Principal gathers us in the dining room. Bell rings and the Ceremony of Expulsion begins.

Madam Principal lays Ogobuchukwuonye on Stool. Stool is so small, Ogobuchukwuonye’s legs and arms jut out at her edges.  Madam Principal does not pause to catch her breath or  flinch  when a globular of sweat runs down her nose or blink even though Ceiling is sprinkling sawdust into her eyes. You cannot really blame Ceiling; he has been telling Madam Principal to change his boards for so long because age has caught up with him and he can hold sawdust no more. Madam Principal wrenches Ogobuchukwuonye by the neck and begins to peel the girl’s skin, carefully lifting each coffee-stain-on-yellow layer of flesh with a knife. Floor does not complain when the strips of Ogobuchukwuonye’s skin fall on her. Yes, she knows the drops of congealed blood will cause molds to grow on her and make the kitchen rats gnaw at her newly polished surface. No, she will not complain or she will face whatever it is she is sure Madam Principal will do to Ceiling for sprinkling sawdust into her  eyes.

When she is done peeling Ogobuchukwuonye’s skin, Madam Principal plucks out Ogobuchukwuonye’s bones and crushes them in a mortar. She pours the powdered bones into a cauldron and lets them boil for some time before scooping the white paste  into a bowl. Sewing Machine helps stitch Ogobuchukwuonye’s skin together while Madam Principal remolds Ogobuchukwuonye’s bones. Madam Principal fits the new bones into the stitched-up skin and seals it as if nothing happened. 

Ogobuchukwuonye lifts her body off the table and starts walking towards the door. We trail behind her, Madam Principal in front. The girl squeezing the doorknob is Ogobuchukwuonye, but not Ogobuchukwuonye-Ogobuchukwuonye because all her magic is gone. Just like Rukus, Nati, and Zimo; the other children Madam Principal has expelled from No. 39 Faulks Street. They all walked out of the door and we never saw them again.

“Are we going to stand here all night looking at a lost soul?” Madam Principal barks. “Go, get ready for your night-rounds.” The corners of her lips fold into a sly smile.

We trudge to our rooms, ninety-six pairs of feet lined with lead.

*

Bell rings again at midnight.

We shuffle out of our rooms and form a single file in front of Madam Principal’s room. Roster yawns before climbing atop Stool. He spreads his brown pages and starts calling out our names in pairs. As Roster calls each pair of names, Madam Principal tells them what they are going to do for the night-round. Tobi and Ramut will mismatch all the drug labels at the pharmacy down the street. Okem and Ajayi will steal fresh bread from the baker’s. Iyanle and Otuba are  to chew off the mayor’s signature on all the documents at Town Council Hall. Unoma and Obong will unclog the water pipes at No. 40 Faulks Street so that our above-the-ground neighbors will stop digging a new borehole. Kelem and Ifenem will gnaw at the feet of the children who peed in the sandpit during the day. Madam Principal says the children’s screams when water touches the sores will be soothing and compensate for the stench of their pee that hung all over the house. 

“Now, make sure you’re back before dawn so I can turn you back into your human forms. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck in a rat’s body,” Madam Principal says as she gives each child a shape-shfting potion to drink.

“Maobi and Ifiok,” Roster says. 

Only Ifiok steps forward. 

“Maobi and Ifiok,” Roster calls again. This time he slams shut, scattering the dust clinging to his dog eared pages. It is now I realize he has been calling my name. 

Madam Principal whacks the center of my head with her knuckle when I stand beside Ifiok. “Where is your mind drifting to, Maobi? You should always listen with–“

“–rapt attention,” I say.

“The two of you will steal The Book of Things Locked In Shadows from the library. It’s in the restricted section.”

The library! With Death Claws, the library cat, manning the shelves and waiting to pounce on any rodent sniffing around. I have never gone for a risky night-round before, unless you count the night Mama Risi of No. 40 Faulks Street nearly bashed Tobi’s and my skull with a spatula when Madam Principal sent us to steal her pancakes. 

My body takes time to adjust to its new form after I drink the shape-shifting potion. Ifiok looks comical. Her rat-nose seems as if someone glued it on her face in a hurry and her tail is stiffened at its end and curved like a walking stick.

*

It is dark-dark when Ifiok and I crawl onto the surface of Faulks Street. The shops are all closed, save for the blacksmith’s.

“Hey, you know we’ve not been paired before for night-rounds,” Ifiok says as she wallops my back with her tail. 

The pain bites into my skin and  I try to whip her back but my tail swooshes above her head. Ifiok giggles. She leaps on top of an old toolbox lying beside the gutter, picks up a bolt and hurls it at me. The bolt bounces against the left side of my belly and spirals into a nearby pothole. I ignore her. A night-round becomes a different kind of hell when Madam Principal pairs you with Ifiok. Determined not to be ignored, Ifiok sinks her teeth into my left hind limb.

“Ouch! What did you do that for?”

She lets out a fulfilled sigh. “You kinda have  tasty blood. Just the right amount of salty.”

“Just stop. We have to get going if we ever want to complete our night-round, or we’ll face the shame-powder tomorrow.”

“Chill out. Ogobuchukwuonye is no longer around so Madam Principal may as well forget about the shame-powder. Why are you gloomy tonight? Lemme read your mind. Emmm… because she expelled Ogobuchukwuonye.”

“Easy guess.”

“Snap out of it.” Ifiok nudges me. “Not that you were even friends or anything. I never really really really liked that girl. People like her, with long names, I find hard to trust. What kind of name is Ogobuchukwuonye? My chest does back-flips just pronouncing it.”

We burst into an almost synced laughter. I have never seen Ifiok laugh before. Her default face is blank. We continue laughing until we reach the library. There, our laughter dies in our throats. The thought of Death Claws resurfaces. We peer through the front window to see if we can catch any sight of the cat before we sneak in. Madam Principal told us that the restricted section is fifteen bookshelves away from the entrance.

Ifiok and I crouch from shelf to shelf until we get to the fifteenth shelf marked RESTRICTED AREA. The Book of Things Locked In Shadows is the first book on the top compartment. In haste to grab the book and head home, my right hind limb kicks another book off the shelf. 

The book lands on the floor with a dead thud.

Don’t breathe, I say to myself, don’t freak out. 

Paracetamol. 

Aracetamol. 

Racetamol. 

Acetamol. 

Cetamol. 

Etamol. 

Tamol. 

Amol. 

Mol. 

Ol. 

L. 

I look around to see if the noise roused the cat. It didn’t. We climb down the shelf and make for the exit. 

A pair of green eyes looms above us when we get to the third bookshelf. The eyes also have a pink tongue licking a hairy, black face. By now, our eyes are accustomed to the darkness and we can see Death Claws forming an arc around us with his body. He meow-yawns, revealing a set of jagged fangs, and pokes our sides with his claws.

“When I bite his paw, we’ll make for the window.” I cannot tell if it is my voice or Ifiok’s.

The things I am seeing now are warped. My eyes are spinning as if someone hoisted it on a conveyor belt. Death Claws growls. Ifiok runs towards the window. I slip under a bookshelf but the cat grabs my tail. He pulls me out and throws me into his mouth. I scratch and tear at his tongue, his lower and upper palate. Death Claws spits me out. He bares his teeth and leaps  toward me. As I dodge, the tail of my left eye catches Ifiok grappling the cat’s ear. Death Claws whips his head backward. This sends Ifiok sailing through the air. She bashes her head against the curtain rail and falls on the floor. A faint wince. She does not move. 

The last thing I remember is Death Claws’s paw pummeling my skull.

*

“He’s awake.”

“No, he’s not.”

“Shhhh!”

“His eyes are twitching.”

“Let the boy rest.”

“But time…”

“I know.”

The words cut my insides like sickles slashing at rice stalks. Everything is bleak. Some monster is playing jamba-jamba inside my head. This should be inside Death Claws’s belly. But the voices…

I slip into soothing darkness.

*

A soft pair of eyes, with an aquamarine gleam and square pupils, is the first thing I see when I open mine. I am lying on a bed, a strange bed that is doing a rupu-rupu sensation on my back. The room is as large as my tired eyes can go. It is also well-lit; you’d think Illumination lives here all day. The wall is painted the color of water; tiny pictures of children building sandcastles hang on it. A table at the far end of the room overlooks the window and the floor is spread with a raffia-woven mat. Someone coughs. It is the pair of soft eyes and she has taken the form of a woman. A blue gown wraps her body, clingy, like it does not want to let go. Her face. Her face looks so much like Madam Principal’s.

“Where am I? Where is Ifiok?” 

Scrambled scenes from the library flash across my mind. I try to get off the bed but I cannot move.

“Lie still. You are going to slow the healing process,” the woman says in a voice that shares a fierce semblance with the pulled  strings of a cello and a violin and a lyre.  I don’t know why, but I am smiling now. 

“I know you must have questions, Maobi, but time is running out.”

“How do you know my name? Who are you?”

“Ifiok told me your name. I’m Nwanyi Kà.”

“That can’t be true, the story says you did katabom-bom and died.”

“Yes. But we witches always have a way of dealing with situations like that,” Nwanyi Kà says and pulls up a stool beside the bed.

“Wait,” I reach for my tail but grasp air. “You changed me back into my human form?”

“Yes. Your head wounds will heal faster this way.”

“Where is Ifiok?”

“Ah, your friend. She is eating breakfast. You took so much time to heal. The cat almost ground your head to pulp. Glad I came in when I did.”

There is a scuffle behind the door. 

“What’s that?” 

“Not what, who. They are your expelled brothers and sisters; Rukus, Nati, Zimo, and Ogobuchukwuonye.”

“Why are they here?”

“I took them in after Madam Principal expelled them.”

“Can I talk to them?” 

“No, not yet. We don’t have time for that.”

“You look so much like Madam Principal.” 

She pauses as though gathering her thoughts. “Yes but that’s beside the point. You have to go back to No. 39 Faulks Street.”

“Where is The Book of Things Locked in Shadows?”

“Ifiok has it. She will tell you everything you need to know.”

Nwanyi Kà gives Ifiok and me a shape-shifting potion to drink before we leave her house. “May the good spirits guide you,” she tells us at the front door and pecks us goodbye.

Because it is well into the morning, Ifiok and I take the sleazy street corners, sewer lines, dark tunnels, and gutters to No. 39 Faulks Street. We do not want the town folks going about their daily business to see two rats talking to each other on the street.

“Many years ago, Nwanyi Kà lived in Awada; a town at the tip of the Great Volcano,” Ifiok begins. “She was the daughter of a great wizard-chief and an enchantress. Many years after her parents died, Nwanyi Kà became bored with her life. She wanted something else besides living in a castle filled with magic and gold.”

“I won’t mind living in a castle filled with magic and gold.”

“Ahhh, let me finish!” Ifiok glares at me and continues. “She left Awada and came to Selemku.”

“To do what?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me but she told me it was in this place that she met a man, Nkem. They got married and brought a son into this world. One night, Nkem walked into the room and saw Nwanyi Kà strangling their son. He raised an alarm but she turned into a bat and flew away. But the child was dead already.”

“Nwanyi Kà, killed her own child?”

“She didn’t do it, stupid.”

“Who did it then?”

“Madam Principal.”

“Madam Principal?”

“Yes. When Nwanyi Kà left Awada, her spirit split into two: the part that wanted to leave and the part that swore to continue her family’s bloodline. Madam Principal is that latter part who would haunt Nwanyi Kà until she decides to come back home.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“I know.”

“So Nwanyi Kà is the good spirit and Madam Principal is like the bad one?”

“Neither of them is good nor bad, they’re both acting under justified volitions.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I can’t think for you.”

“But..”

“So back to the story. Nkem raised an alarm that his wife had killed their son. When the neighbors gathered, a sleeping Nwanyi Kà was dragged out of bed to Town Council Hall where she would face–“

“– the guillotine.”

“Maobi, I am the one telling the story!”

We are at the library now. Death Claws is licking a bowl of sugar beside the window. He bares his teeth when he sees us walk past. 

Ifiok scoffs to draw back my attention  momentarily stolen by Death Claws. 

“Nwanyi Kà started a quiet life at the outskirts of Selemku after what happened. You know, her bursting into pieces, the birth and disappearance of the unusual babies. She still comes into town to make sure we are all safe during our night-rounds, like last night when she saved us from Death Claws. We still contain pieces of her inside us. And she took the children Madam Principal expelled. You should have seen Ogobuchukwuonye this morning when she served me tea; she was all flowers and candy.”

“Did she tell you why she wanted to smash Flower Vase on Madam Principal’s head?”

“Yes. Madam Principal had sent Ogobuchukwuonye to burn her original parents’ house at No. 10 but she refused.”

I find it hard to believe Ifiok so I move on to my next question. “What does she want us to do?” 

“To go home and pretend as if nothing happened.”

“Just that, do nothing?”

“Yes. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to do.” Ifiok stops to catch her breath. “Nwanyi Kà has been looking for Madam Principal for all these years. Rukus, Nati, Zimo, and Ogobuchukwuonye couldn’t tell her about No. 39 Faulks Street because Madam Principal wiped their memories about where the house is. But now she knows about the house and will come by to make things right with Madam Principal.”

“You told her about the house?”

“Yes, as a return gesture. She saved us from Death Claws, remember? You want to know what Nwanyi Kà will do when she visits?”

It’s as if Ifiok yanked the thought right out of my head. “I thought you forgot this mind reading thing when Death Claws bashed your head against the wall?”

“Because they’re fragments of the same being, if Nwanyi Kà touches Madam Principal, time will rewind.” Ifiok sidesteps a puddle of urine. The Book of Counted Shadows on her back is weighing her down so she has to double her pace to keep up with me.  .

“To when?”

“To the night Madam Principal killed Nwanyi Kà’s son. Nwanyi Kà will be awake by then to stop her. So none of these things would happen.”

“What will happen to us? Will we still exist?”

“Of course, but without our magical powers.”

“We won’t be able to do cool stuff like fly or shape-shift?”

“Yes, but we’ll have a real family like  other children in Selemku and stop sneaking around street corners, doing night-rounds for Madam Principal.”

“What about the other children?”

“Not a word to any of them. They’re too scared of Madam Principal, they’ll spill the beans.”

“What if they don’t want to lose their powers? You know it’s also their life?”

“Maobi, the life is ours but the magic belongs to Nwanyi Kà and she has decided to take it back.”

*

Madam Principal is prancing up and down the stairs when we get home. 

“What kept you so long?” She snatches the book off Ifiok’s back, runs her fingers along the book’s spine, and takes a long sniff.

“We had to wait for the library cat to sleep before we could get in,” Ifiok answers. 

I almost heaved a sigh of relief. My head is still wrapped around Ifiok’s story that I did not remember to cook up a lie for Madam Principal.

Madam Principal gives us the shape-shifting potion and tells us to go in and join the others for breakfast. I cannot concentrate on my plate of corn porridge and fish sauce because Ceiling is whimpering. I excuse myself from the breakfast table to talk to Ceiling. He says Madam Principal bore holes on him with a hot rod and that Madam Principal promised to repeat the gesture if he tells anyone what happened. 

The morning drags along like it does not want to pass. But night comes and the next day and another day and another, still nothing happens. 

*

It’s midday, exactly two weeks after the incident at the library. Madam Principal summons Ifiok and me upstairs, to her bedroom. 

“Ah, come in. Lock the door behind you,” she says to a shuddering Ifiok and me.

I am certain we are called in because Madam Principal now knows for certain what happened that night. Any moment from now we will be expelled.

“You know how Ogobuchukwuonye was special to me,” Madam Principal begins. “But you’ve brought me something even more special.”

She picks up The Book Of Counted Shadows from the dressing table and runs her fingers along its spine. “This book,” she says, flipping through the moldy brown pages, “is a cut-and-join diary of a woman who was haunted so much by the Mirror Witch she drowned herself and her daughter at Eucalyptus Ridge.” She buries her nose in the middle of the book and inhales the musk. “At least that’s what the townsfolk know, what they don’t know is that Nkem journeyed to Awele to find her lover. Long story, you won’t understand.”

We stand there gaping at Madam Principal.

“Hey, every time my favorite child errs and I have them expelled, I send two of you to the library to get me a book. After they’ve succeeded in getting the book, I choose my new favorite child from the pair. That’s how I chose Nati, Zimo, and Ogobuchukwuonye. Books help me forget to stop wondering what is happening to them as they walk alone in this dangerous world. But you see, I’ve rid them of magic so the townsfolk will show them mercy, even it’s just a weeny bit.” Madam Principal gathers the loose ends of her lappah, drops the book on the table, and faces us. “Funny thing, Ifiok has always been among the pair I send to the library but she never gets chosen as my fave. Weird child, let’s see if your luck changes today.”

Someone raps on the door.

“How many times do I have to tell you all not to bother me, especially when I’m in the bedroom!” Madam Principal bawls. “Maobi get the door. Wait, lemme get it myself and smack that little rascal right in the forehead.”

“So long, stranger,” someone says as Madam Principal opens the door. She hastens to slam the door close but the door slams against an obstructing foot. Madam Principal loses her balance and sprawls on the bedroom’s floor. 

Nwanyi Kà walks into the room.

“Don’t touch me.” Madam Principal manages to voice over her pain; she probably bruised or sprained something falling.

“It’s time for this to stop. You can’t hold me hostage in Awada forever.”

“What about your duty to your parents; The Great Wizard and Enchantress?”

“A duty I didn’t choose myself.”

“You told her about this place,” Madam Principal says as she points at Ifiok and I. “Maobi, I knew she put you up to this…”

Nwanyi Kà wraps her palms around Madam Principal’s wrists and everything starts dissolving into air or phantom, I cannot say for sure. I become formless, although I can still see and hear things. A tiny room appears where a little boy is sleeping in a metal cot. The window creaks open and the rushing night wind blows out the candle. A woman is standing above the cot, looking at the child. The little boy stirs awake and begins to cry. Another woman enters the room and shuts the door. It is a bit confusing now because the two women look alike. There is shouting and rage and fighting and thunder and lightning and blood inside the room. 

The little boy continues to cry as this air or phantom I have become disappears.

*

This body I am in now feels strange. It’s small and bathed with talcum. I am in a room that smells of egusi and uziza. A woman scoops me up and nuzzles my chin. Her eyelids are sagged and her hands are shaky. Someone calls her Nwanyi Kà. The other women around are all telling the story of how a thunderbolt nearly killed Nwanyi Kà’s son three weeks back. A woman comes into the room and takes me from Nwanyi Kà’s hands. 

“We’re running late already,” the woman says, “but still carry him, Mama Chikwerendu has not finished rubbing otanjele on my eyes.”

“That’s your mother,” Nwanyi Kà whispers to me. “Don’t worry, you’ll forget everything once the naming rite is over. A new name. A new you.”

We are going somewhere. Men, women, and children are walking behind my mother. We stop at a shed where a man in shiny loincloth puts me in a basket.

“His name is Unoanyierika; our house is numerous.” The man in shiny loincloth says and holds me out to the sun.

There are other women carrying babies waiting to be named. I feel like I know all the babies from somewhere. I want to talk to them, to ask them if they feel queasy in this form but it’s only gibberish that comes from my mouth. 


Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. They live in Lagos and write to make sense of the world around them.

Feature image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash